When a Venetian invites you for a drink, they’ll say Andemo bever un’ombra – “Let’s go drink a shadow” Venetians have a lovely tradition of meeting friends after work in their neighborhood wine bars for a quick glass of wine and some savory bite-sized snacks before heading home for dinner.
This tradition dates back to the 12th century when ships unloaded their wine cargo at the Riva degli Schiavoni. Some savvy entrepreneurs set up wine stands under the shaded base of the nearby Bell Tower in Piazza San Marco. To keep the wine cool, the stands moved around the base of the tower as the shadows (Ombra) shifted. Following the shadow kept the wine as cool as possible on a sunny day. This tradition of stopping to drink a shadow has existed among Venetians ever since.
Eventually, the stands moved inside, and the wine bar “ bacaro” was born. For centuries, the wine bar was the place for Venetians to stop for a drink before heading home after work. Barkeepers soon realized their clients needed something to ‘absorb’ the alcohol and started offering little finger foods called cicheti.
The small wine bars I visit today remind me of when my Venetian relatives took me to my first bacaro in 1979. I can still remember walking over the threshold into a cozy, small, dark bar. There were no chairs, only a long wooden bar with a glass front that showcased the many savory offerings on a long line of white plates – grilled polenta topped with creamy cod, mozzarella fried in a bread ‘boat’, baby squid stuffed with olives, fried zucchini flowers, the tiniest sandwich of Venetian crab, Crostini were skewered with toothpicks that secured a pickled onion to an anchovy topped with a tart berry, or a thick slab of mortadella pinched between a pistachio and sweet pickle. Toothpicks let you know you are about to experience a burst of flavor from the many ingredients it was holding together. Since there was no seating, if you were lingering a little longer than normal, you could rest your plates or glass on a wood shelf that ran the length of the wall, or if you were lucky on the top of the bar itself.
The baccari haven’t changed much since my first visit. The back bar still holds as many plump demijohns it can hold, each one with a different wine from the Veneto and the walls are lined with more wine bottles.
The aroma is still intoxicating – the bouquets of red and white wines past and present mingled with the heavenly scents of cured meats, salty seafood, sweet and sour from the popular Venetian dish Sarde in Saor, cheeses and fried vegetables, herbs and olive oil. It is culinary nirvana.
Venice’s secret has now become popular with tourists. So much so that you can find many tour operators offering a cicheti wine tour. If you want to see the authentic side of this Venetian secret, I’ve included a list of our favorite bacari in order of sequence. If you prefer to be in the company of a Venetian Papavero Villa Rentals can arrange one of their friends who will take you to the wine bars where the locals hang out.
Many bacari are open during the lunch hour as well. If you want to mingle with the locals, make sure you are off the beaten path as most are hidden on quiet streets, and stop in right before noon or between 6 and 8 in the evening. Cicheti are meant for a quick snack before dinner, but it’s a fun and inexpensive way to enjoy a meal and ideal if you don’t have much time between museums.
Wines and foods found in a Venetian Wine Bar
The Veneto is the largest wine-producing region in Italy. It has 28 DOC’s and 14 DOCG’s some sharing territory with bordering regions of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna. Millions of bottles are shipped around the world, but they say the largest consumers are the locals. So, try something you may be unfamiliar with when visiting a Venetian bacari and embrace the local ‘table’ wines. The best way to sample Venice’s authentic cuisine is by visiting a few bacari as that bacari will have their own specialties as well as some of these favorites, some bacari will specialize in seafood, cheeses, meats, etc. so make sure to stop in more than once during your stay in one of our Venice apartment vacation rentals.
These are some of Venice’s most popular cicheti
- Crostini: slices of bread with various toppings
- Polpette: meat, fish or vegetable fritters
- Baccalà mantecato: creamed cod served on chargrilled planks of polenta
- Folpetti: boiled baby octopus sliced in half and dressed with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper
- Sarde fritte: fried sardines
- Sarde in saor: fried sardines marinated in white onion, wine vinegar, raisins and pine nuts
- Mezzo uovo: half-boiled egg topped with capers, pickles or anchovies
- Insalata di piovra: octopus salad with extra virgin olive oil, herbs
- Mortadella e peperone: a thick slice of mortadella with a pickled sweet pepper
- Fetta di salame: thick slice of salami
- Cipolline con l’acciuga: pickled onion with an anchovy
- Seppioline fritte: fried baby squid (only when in season and quite expensive)
- Seppie o calamari all griglia: grilled squid or calamari
- Cappesante al Forno – oven baked sea scallops on the half shell
How to order
Cicheti are generally charged by piece or by portion. In most places, the price tag is placed just in front of the relative nibble, but other times… well, it’s just missing! In such cases, don’t hesitate to ask the barkeeper. More or less, in each bacari, you will spend on average from 3 to 7 euros per person.
The bar/ counter is usually at the entrance, so choose what you want, pay, and try to find a spot for yourself. Most bacari place a wooden shelf or wine barrels just outside so that clients can put down their glass and have free hands. Some now even have tables outside where you can sit. In general, when it comes to cicheti walks, during the day the experience is more about the food, whereas in the evening the main focus is the drinking and socializing! When time is tight, you can always make a meal out of grazing through the abundant cicheti that are offered.
You own Cicheti Walk
If you want to experience Venice like a Venetian, take this independent cicheti walk, through some of Venice’s most picturesque streets. Most of the wine bars are in the Cannaregio and San Polo districts, the less touristy areas of Venice and home to most working-class Venetians.
This itinerary starts at the train station but jump in anywhere and visit as many as you like. Considering a leisurely walk, and some time to enjoy each wine bar, this itinerary will take from 4 to 5 hours to complete.
With the train station to your back, take the busy street Lista di Spagna on your right and immediately charge your batteries with a quick stop at:
Address: Cannaregio, Calle de la Misericordia 367/A, 30121
Our first destination, a small wine bar managed by two brothers, with a carefully selected wine list and a really excellent baccalà mantecato. The interior is in dark wood and the atmosphere friendly.
Address: Canneregio 2329, Venezia 30100
Proceed along Strada Nuova, the main street, until you reach Vecia Carbonera. This is one of my favorite locations as, differently from most osterie, it has a spacious interior, and it’s possible to sit down. There is no table service (thus, no extra cost), so you order at the counter, pay, and relax. The counter is at the right of the entrance and has a very rich window with a wide variety of crostini, fish skewers, gratin veg and individual portions of dishes like aubergines parmigiana. I suggest trying the crostini with chicken livers and the ones with ricotta and zucchini.
Address: Cannaregio, Fondamenta della Misericordia 2540, 30121
Located in Fondamenta della Misericordia, Paradiso has been open for ages. It’s colorful, it’s lively and always very busy. I usually have an ombra and a small portion of octopus salad, but you should also try the grilled polenta with baccalà mantecato and the fried sardines.
Address: Cannaregio, Fondamenta della Misericordia 2497, 30121
Only a few metres away, Vino Vero is specialized in natural wine (thus, they don’t serve ombre) and quality crostini. In the display window, you will only see the crostini, but it’s also possible to ask for a small salad or a selection of cured meats and cheese, which is prepared at the moment. Among the crostini, my favorites are the ones with seppie in nero (squid in ink) and the ones with spicy chicory, anchovies and cheese.
Trattoria alla Vedova
Address: Cannaregio, Ramo Ca’ d’Oro 3912, 30121
Located in a side calle of Strada Nuova, it is one of the oldest osterie in Venice and is renowned for its garlicky polpette. The tables are reserved for the restaurant (also very good), and there isn’t a lot of space inside, so we normally order at the counter and the step outside. If the situation is quite, I suggest trying the boiled latti di seppia (boiled squid eggs) and the fondi di carciofo (heart of the artichoke).
Address: Cannaregio, Calle dell’Oca 4367, 30121
Slightly hidden, this place has become very popular. The tables are reserved for the restaurant and those enjoying wine and cicheti stand either at the counter or in the street. Promessi Sposi is known for the skewers with three small fried meatballs, but I also recommend the sarde in saor and the sardines in beccafico style, thus rolled and stuffed with a trite of breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley, raisins, pine nuts and vinegar. They also have a good offer of vegetables!
Address: San Marco, Calle de la Bissa 5482, 30124
Before crossing the Rialto Bridge, consider stopping at Sepa. Although it’s not exactly an osteria, this recently opened take away is specialized in traditional Venetian cuisine. In addition to the various cicheti, every day at 1 pm, they prepare a risotto, which I highly recommend trying! Besides being delicious, I find it has a very good value for money (3 euros for half a portion and 5 euros for a full portion).
Address: San Marco, Calle de la Bissa 5424/a, 30124
At one minute from Sepa, Gislon is the reference stop for mozzarella in carrozza, a local treat made by frying two slices of white bread previously into whipped eggs and stuffed with mozzarella and either prosciutto or anchovies.
Address: San Polo, Campo San Giacometto 122, 30125
This wine bar was the first to open after the vegetable whole market was moved to the Tronchetto area. The location itself is stunning. From the late XVI century to the fall of the Republic it used to be a bank, then it changed function and currently hosts this fancy wine bar and restaurant. The selection of wine is of excellent quality (no ombre here) and the cicheti on offer really inviting. I suggest trying a variety of crostini and their sarde in saor.
Address: Campo Bella Vienna 213, 30125
A few meters away, in campo Bella Vienna, Al Marca’ offers small panini with different fillings and meat, fish and aubergine fritters. My favourite sandwich is tuna and radicchio.
Address: San Polo, Campo de la Pescaria, 255/A, 30125
A recent acquisition, I Compari is managed by a kind man from Padova called Simone. Located right in front of the fruit and veg market, this is the place for folpetti, boiled baby octopus dressed with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. In addition to the octopus, the baccalà in red is superb and at lunch time it’s also possible to have express dishes. Excellent value for money and friendly and attentive service.
Address: San Polo 436, 30125
Probably the most written about Venetian osteria, All’Arco has maintained quality through the years. A family business made of passionate people that pay great attention to ingredient sourcing. When you step in, you will find yourself in front of a rich window filled with crostini, fried baccalà (a must-have), francobolli (tiny squared tramezzini sandwiches), boiled fish, and more. Choose, order, and hope to find a free chair!
Cantina Do Mori
Address: San Polo 429, 30125
The ambiance is completely different, wider, and darker. The food? Delicious! My favorite is the pickled baby onion with anchovy, but if you are into milder flavors don’t worry, you will still be spoilt by choice. From crostini with marinated fish to veg spreads (try the asparagus or the artichoke ones), from revisited tramezzini to boiled baby octopus, from half-boiled eggs to rolled grilled and marinated aubergine topped with dried tomato and -obviously- lots and lots of wine.
Before continuing with our endeavors, we’re going to leave Rialto and head towards Dorsoduro for our final stop.
Cantinone del Vino già Schiavi
Address: Dorsoduro 992, F.ta Nani, 30123
Another historical wine bar, where it’s possible to taste an incredible variety of crostini with an endless assortment of toppings (my favorite: nettle sauce and brie cheese). Easy going and friendly atmosphere, it’s nice to order and then step outside and enjoy the drinks along the canal. Only a few meters away, one of the oldest squeri (shipyard for gondolas) in Venice.
If for some reason you are still hungry, stop in at the Bar Toletta for a Tramezzino. Or save it for another day.
Address: Dorsoduro 1191, 30123
Here you won’t find cicheti, but… another renowned local specialty called tramezzino. Tramezzini are triangular sandwiches made with white bread (with the crust removed), mayo and stuffed with different fillings, a quintessential Venetian street food experience in Venice, usually one of the first things Venetians do when they return home after a vacation. Bites of pure pleasure, perfect to end your walk.
Patrice Salezze is the owner of Papavero Villa Rentals, offering villa and apartment rentals throughout Italy.
You can reach her at Patrice@PapveroRentals.com or call her at 610 224 1004